Review: Ch. 7 of “I Don’t Have Enough Faith To Be an Atheist”

Originally published 11/24/2005. Links were valid at time of publication.
In this chapter the authors are on much more familiar ground, discussing Moral Law as it pertains to some of the arguments atheists (and relativists) make. However, the authors’ binary solution (absolutism vs. relativism) illustrates some of the weaknesses in their own stance as well.

This chapter makes six basic points (pp 192 – 193):

  • There is an absolute standard of right and wrong that is written on the hearts of every human being.
  • Relativism is false.
  • The Moral Law must have a source higher than ourselves.
  • The Moral Law is God’s standard of rightness, and it helps us adjudicate between the different moral opinions people may have.
  • Although it is widely believed that all morality is relative, core moral values are absolute, and they transcend cultures.
  • Atheists have no real basis for objective right and wrong.

To the extent that this chapter is the one in which the authors make their strongest case against atheistic arguments, it’s good that they happen to be on stronger footing than in the previous chapters. However, the authors do make some assumptions that atheists would not make in their arguments, which means that closer observation of these points are warranted.

Is There a Standard?

The authors attempt to not only make the claims above, but they set out to systematically support these points an a valuable and truly admirable way. Unlike other chapters where they simply begin throwing terms around that they don’t truly understand, such as “evolution,” they begin with the fundamental concept of the chapter – Moral Law – and they define it. More importantly, they proceed to ask the reader to explore the epistemological support for a Moral Law (an epistemological argument is one in which we come to understand how we know something).

To begin with, the authors start with a rather common-sense Aristotelean syllogism:

  1. Every law has a law giver
  2. There is a Moral Law
  3. Therefore, there is a Moral Law Giver

So far, so good. According to the rules of syllogistic logic, if we accept the premise of the first two points, the conclusion must also be accepted.

Here, though, we have to examine the premises in order to determine if we can readily accept the conclusion. The first premise – “Every law has a law giver” – is taken as a given for the purposes of the chapter. An atheist might have a difficult time accepting such a premise, given that we accept scientific “laws” as discoverable, not creatable. We cannot, for instance, create a Law of Energy. On the contrary, we notice that Energy has certain characteristics that are so defined, so unchangeable, so predictable, that we merely identify them as having “laws” of behavior.

Legal laws, of course, are a different story. Those are certainly created – by men – and are often pointless and/or politically motivated. It’s difficult to believe that the authors are implying that God is making arbitrarily-created laws. Since the authors do not explicitly state that they are referring to laws in the “arbitrary” sense, but rather ones that are natural and detached from ourselves – “natural” laws – we can safely assume that they are discussing the former.

A clue appears when the authors describe how others refer to the same concept (p. 170):

Some call this moral prescription “conscience”; others call it “Natural Law”; still others (like our Founding Fathers) refer to it as “Nature’s Law.” We refer it to “The Moral Law.” But whatever you call it, the fact that a moral standard has been prescribed on the minds of all human beings points to a Moral Law Prescriber. Every prescription has a prescriber. The Moral Law is no different. Someone must have given us these moral obligations.

That clue is simply this: they have taken the definition of the first use of the phrase “Law” and ascribed it to the second. In other words, the authors have pulled a bait-and-switch on the unsuspecting reader by attempting to use terms meaning “natural” and ascribing definitions meaning “arbitrary.”

Despite the fact that the authors gloss over the atheistic arguments regarding “law giver,” they focus on part two of their syllogism: There is a Moral Law.

At first it appears that they will attempt to follow through with more bait-and-switch. Evidence of this is exemplified in the authors’ attempts to use Thomas Jefferson to support their position, yet another example that is at best tenuous and, in this case at least, indefensible:

But is it really true that there is a Moral Law? Our Founding Fathers thought so. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “Nature’s Law” is “self-evident.” You don’t use reason to discover it, you just know it (p. 171).

One of the criticisms atheists have of Christian arguments – and rightfully so – is the bastardization of the statements made by the Founding Fathers. There is significant evidence that by escaping religious intolerance in the Old World they were particularly concerned about persecution by state-supported religious beliefs. This quote taken out of context is yet another dramatic example.

When Jefferson wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” he was stating that they need not be defended. This is yet another example of how the general public does not comprehend the difference between a Right and a Privilege. A Right is something that is inherent, it is not granted to you. A Privilege is something that is granted to you, not inherent. The authors attempt to make the claim that God gives you rights, which is incorrect. If you are given something, it can be taken away. Therefore, according to the authors’ arguments, human beings have absolutely no Rights at all, since God as the outside objective force granting you Rights can, by the same whim, take them away. That, however, is a Privilege, not a Right.

Unfortunately for the authors, this is the basis for their entire chapter. They tend to ignore this fundamental flaw in Argument 1 (“Every Law has a Law Giver”) and focus the remainder of the chapter on the Moral Law.

How do we know the Moral Law exists?

To their credit, the authors have outlined for the reader ways of knowing that the Moral Law exists. In fact, for anyone attempting to examine some of the deeper questions surrounding morality and Christianity – and atheists do have several questions regarding these fundamental issues – this is an excellent way to attempt to garner a comprehension into the minds of why Christians think God is an arbiter of morality.

The authors’ outline consists of eight basic reasons, though they claim that there are many more. The ones they state are (p. 172):

  1. The Moral Law is undeniable
  2. We know it by our reactions
  3. It is the basis of human rights
  4. It is the unchanging standard of justice
  5. It defines a real difference between moral positions (e.g., Mother Teresa vs. Hitler)
  6. Since we know what is absolutely wrong, there must be an absolute standard of rightness
  7. The Moral Law is the grounds for political and social dissent
  8. If there were no Moral Law, then we wouldn’t make excuses for violating it

Obviously, these reasons aren’t really reasons but rather a line of reasoning. The authors should be applauded for attempting to tackle some of the more thorny issues (Mother Teresa vs. Hitler, e.g.) surrounding Christian concepts of Morality, but we have to examine the merits of their argument before we can simply allow ourselves to be in agreement.

The Moral Law is undeniable

On the face of it, the concept of a Moral Law – especially as other groups have the same concept albeit by other names – makes a great deal of sense. It is very easy to understand that there is something that needs to be objective, a standard by which we can measure ourselves, our behavior, our attitudes. For many, that “outside influence” is very difficult to identify, much less verbalize.

The authors claim, however, that there is a logical way to show that a Moral Law must exist. All that needs to be done is to show how relativists cannot maintain a logical position. The authors illustrate the “Road Runner” tactic – so named for how Wile E. Coyote used to attempt to hold himself in the air by holding his own rope with his own hand, only to fall to the earth – to show how relativists’ arguments cannot be sustained.

For instance, they claim that relativist Joseph Fletcher, author of Situation Ethics, makes an indefensible comment about never saying never. The authors quote Fletcher: “the situationist avoids words like ‘never’ and ‘perfect’ and ‘always’ … as he avoids the plague, as he avoids ‘absolutely.’ But those very statements do not avoid what they say we must avoid. Relativists are absolutely sure that there are no absolutes” (p. 172-173, emphasis in the original).

Unfortunately, the authors make three mistakes here. First, the authors claim that relativists are absolutely sure. This simply isn’t true. In fact, the relativist will say that because we don’t know all there is to know, we must always leave room for the possibility that we don’t have all the information or all the facts. It is that uncertainty that causes the relativist discomfort, not absolutism. It is the fact that the relativist is not absolutely sure that he attempts to prevent himself from fooling himself into thinking that he is. And yes, this paradoxically includes the possibility that there are absolutes.

Second, the authors misunderstand the motivation for avoiding terms like “never,” “always,” or “absolute.” As noted in other commentaries, one of the main problems with the authors’ arguments are that they are so rigid that they cannot adjust or adapt to changing facts or evidence. Because of the fact that they are absolutist in their stance, they run the risk of eliminating new evidence from their world view rather than risk modifying their world view. An absolutist must be absolutely convinced in their conclusion before they support it. The relativist allows for the opportunity to modify or augment their understanding by permitting themselves the position of not being absolute in their stance.

Third, the authors neglect any other options. This is something that has appeared before, most notably in their description and arguments against evolution. Here, they fall into the same trap: they assume that because their opponent’s arguments are incorrect, theirs must be correct. To them, it’s an either/or situation, as are most of their arguments. And, as atheists have pointed out, there is no real argument for a Moral Law here, just a refutation of a contrary argument.

But, a third option? Could there really be a third option aside from absolute or relativist?

Our Reactions Help Us Discover the Moral Law (Right from Wrong)

The authors provide an anecdote – amusing, but ultimately incorrect – about a student who hands in a paper to his professor claiming that there were no absolute morals, that all morals were relative, no absolute standard of rightness. The professor gave the student an “F,” ostensibly because the student had placed the paper in a blue folder. When the student protested, the professor smartly responded that it was the student’s own position was that there were no objective standards, and therefore no such thing as fairness, rightness, and justice, that it was all a matter of taste, the professor’s taste did not lean towards blue and therefore the student received the “F”:

Suddenly the lightbulb went on in the student’s head. He realized he really did believe in moral absolutes. He at least believed in justice. After all, he was charging his professor with injustice for giving him an F simply because of the color of the folder. That simple fact defeated his entire case for relativism. (p. 174, emphasis in the original)

Well, actually, it didn’t. What is a shame is that the student didn’t have the wherewithall to retort to the professor that he had just proven the student’s point after all. By giving the student the F for having such a subjective measure, the professor had ultimately agreed with the student’s position. The end result of getting an F is immaterial (except, of course, to the student whose GPA depends on such things). It could be argued that grades are an unfortunate subjective circumstance in academic environments, but that’s best left for another essay.

This, however, is where the third option comes into play between absolutism and relativism. There is more than just a binary option of absolutes and anarchy (which is what absolutists really believe relativism to mean).

We call this in-between stage a negotiated order.

Let us assume for the moment that you are the only person on the planet. Let’s leave aside for the moment how it came to be this way, or how boring it would be not to have anyone to talk to, and focus on the question of morality.

The first thing to ask ourselves at this point is this: is there a need for morality? Morals are, after all, a system of beliefs for right and wrong. It’s not just a laundry list of things that are right, and things that are wrong. It is our ability to determine for ourselves whether something is a good idea or a bad idea. In our example of being by ourselves on the planet, we don’t have anyone else for whom to hold fiduciary responsibility, so we are left with determining what is right or wrong for ourselves.

In this case, right or wrong merely means whether something is a “good idea” or a “bad idea.” Jumping off a cliff onto the rocks below, given that we would probably want to survive afterwards, would be a “bad idea,” or wrong. If, however, our goal was to kill ourselves, then it would be a “good idea,” or right. Same action, different moral judgment.

Let’s start adding people. One person is all we need. When we change our environment to include other people, we find that we have to modify our behavior accommodate their existence. In some cases this is behavioral, in other cases it may be emotional. Add more people and it becomes political. In either situation, we find ourselves needing to handle the relationship with others.

To this end, we begin understanding that what is a “good idea” and/or “bad idea” relates to how we interact with other people. We begin creating a negotiated order of our situation, where we make agreements about how we will be have if they behave in a similar fashion. That agreement becomes the basis for our system of right and wrong.

Soon, over time, that system becomes codified. We find that we’re not the only people on the planet, and for every new person that we add to our environment we realize that we have to write this stuff down in order to keep track of it and make sure everyone can learn from past mistakes. Over time, this situation has an internal consistency that must be adhered to or the process breaks down. The anecdote of the professor/student above is one such example about how the interaction violated that internal consistency and negotiated order.

The simple fact remains, though, that whenever two people get together and negotiate how behavior will be conducted – say two children create a game and mutually agree upon the rules – they are creating a “higher authority” than each of them individually. The children will compare the behavior of themselves and their playmate’s behavior according to the rules upon which they agree. No God created the rules of that game, however it is the rules of the game that the children judge whether something is ‘right or wrong’ or ‘fair or unfair.’ Those rules are objective. They are “outside” the individual and can be referred to. It can also be considered “higher” than the individual depending on how you wish to draw the hierarchy of decisions. When something in those rules proves to be untenable, the rules are renegotiated and they are changed. That is the nature of the negotiated order.

In the situation with the professor, the egregious behavior on the part of the professor was not due to relativistic ethics, but due to a breach of the negotiated order! He acted in a manner that was inconsistent with the negotiated understanding between teacher and student.

The student, however, was unprepared to handle an argument of this nature, or perhaps the power differential between a student/professor was too intimidating. Either way, the outcome of this particular parable should have been very, very different.

Without Moral Law, there would be no Human Rights

Here, again, the authors stroll through unfounded (pun intended) territory. One of the things that Christians love to do is trot out the phrase in the Declaration of Independence that pertains to “their Creator.”

In this case, though, the authors make a very good argument with regards to the strength of the argument of using the “Creator” versus stating:

Had they begun the Declaration with, “We hold these opinions as our own…” (rather than “self-evident” “truths”), they wouldn’t have expressed an objective moral justification for their Declaration of Independence. It simply would have been their opinion against that of King George (p. 176).

This is very true. Recall for the moment that 1776 England still hung on to the tenuous position of the Divine Right of Kings. The notion was fading, but not fast enough for the philosophes and Enlightenment philosophers (of whom Thomas Jefferson qualifies).

It was King George’s position that as King, he was also the head of the Church of England, and thus had adopted the stature of being second to God (this is the fundamental tenet of the Divine Right of Kings). King George’s argument was that as head of the Church, it was he who gave the right to the Colonists, not the Colonists themselves.

To this end, Jefferson and the other Colonists could not mount an argument that addressed anything less than the King’s own decrees. In other words, there needed to be something bigger than the King’s opinion, since by Law the King’s opinion was (by definition) divine.

It’s difficult to imagine in the 21st Century that anyone would take such a stance seriously. However, if the authors are going to use 18th Century logic to advance their cause, they need to look at 18th Century logic as well.

King George’s argument was that, as a divine being, he could grant and withdraw human rights at will. As noted before, if you can withdraw them, they are privileges, not rights. Jefferson and the signers knew that in order to combat the extremely strong argument that George could corrupt not only the definition of rights but also need to bypass his divine superiority and communicate this to the audience of 1776, he needed to name George’s divine boss as the higher authority than George.

The distinction between rights and privileges, though, is an important one. We do not know (nor could we, unless we had access to the volumes of letters that were destroyed by Jefferson after his wife’s death) how much of a comprehension the Founding Fathers had.

We do know, though, that Jefferson was profoundly influenced by English philosophe John Locke and Voltaire. Jefferson adopted Locke’s “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Property” to his own use: “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” (the meaning of that change is best left for another time). There is considerable evidence that Jefferson knew about the difference between rights and privileges but that distinction was probably unnecessary for the greater purpose of declaring independence from England rather than a philosophical tract.

Without the Moral Law, We Couldn’t Know Justice or Injustice

The authors cite C. S. Lewis in their support for this claim:

[As an atheist] my argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? (p. 176-177).

Without question, C. S. Lewis is one of the greatest Christian authors and philosophers of the 20th Century. I’m currently reading Mere Christianity in conjunction with other books, and the man’s brilliance is instantly obvious upon reading the preface. As an aside, it’s too bad that many Christians haven’t even read Lewis – they probably would learn a great deal.

But even Lewis is not infallible. If we take this quote of Lewis’ on its own (which means, of course, taking it out of context which is precisely what the authors have done by citing it here), we start to see some of the issues we have with the logic.

First, the universe is not cruel or unjust. The universe merely is. Even the authors, when they attempt to describe Moral Law do so in terms of behavior, not existentialism.

Second, as noted above, whenever we examine our lives within the context or environment of others, we realize that there is a negotiated order that helps us guide our system of right and wrong (or, as the case may be, a “good idea” vs. a “bad idea”). What Lewis found was that when he looked on a grand scale of behaviors, he found a massive affront to his sense of negotiated order. This is what we all do when we make claims about how “the world is cruel” or some other such unseasonable claim.

Geisler makes an astounding claim in this section of the book by claiming, “I (Norm) love debating Jewish atheists. Why? Because I’ve never met a Jewish person who believes that the Holocaust was just a matter of opinion. They all believe it was really wrong, regardless of what anyone thinks about it” (p. 177).

We’ll leave aside from the moment that the phrase “Jewish Atheist” is mutually exclusive, and instead focus on Geisler’s straw man approach.

First, suppose for the moment that we take the side of the “Jewish Atheist.” Geisler asks, ‘”On what grounds do you say the Holocaust was wrong?” He said, “by my own benign moral feeling.” What else could he say?”‘ (p. 177).

Geisler’s decision to point out that his opponent is Jewish serves only one purpose: to identify this individual as someone who has been culturally wronged in some way. Non-Jews were also tortured, maimed, gassed and burned in Nazi Germany, but Geisler doesn’t ask his local Russian, Gypsy, Polish or Hungarian. The point here is that anyone could be found that would argue that the Holocaust was wrong. So, Geisler could have found an atheist that would argue this point but he was looking for someone who felt personally violated by this event.

This is not the same thing that anyone who is found would argue that the Holocaust is wrong. More on this in a moment.

The Jewish opponent could have just as easily said, “Because the Holocaust violated the negotiated order between Germany and weaker cultures.” According to our answer there, we can see that we have established a relationship between Germany and other cultures, weaker though they may have been, and that Germany’s actions were inconsistent with that negotiated order. In other words, it was wrong.

The problem with Geisler’s argument is that it’s too easy to be turned back upon him. More people have died in the history of the world in God’s name than for any other reason. On the contrary, we could ask, “How many people have been killed in the name of Atheism?” According to Geisler’s own standard of “Murder is wrong,” would it not appear that Atheism has a stronger moral ground?

Without the Moral Law, There would be No Way to Measure Moral Differences

Bizarrely, the authors choose various maps of Scotland to illustrate this point.

Which is the better map?… The only way to tell is to see what the real Scotland looks like. In other words, you would have to compare both maps to a real unchanging place called Scotland. If Scotland does not exist, then the maps are meaningless (p. 178).

The reason why this is a bizarre example is because maps – and their meaning – have been used to illustrate the exact opposite point the authors are attempting to make. S. I. Hiyakawa coined the phrase, “The map is not the territory,” and it provides some major insight into the authors’ example here.

First, Scotland is anything but unchanging. Take a look at maps of Scotland (since the authors wish to use maps, we’ll continue with their example) over the course of the past thousand years. The map the authors use illustrates political boundaries; does Scotland change over time? Absolutely! The political boundaries that separate (or join) Scotland and England are hotly contested over this time. So, the “real unchanging place called Scotland” is not a real, unchanging place at all!

Second, a map is a representation of a place. This is what Hiyakawa meant. At best, a map is a way of examining a “real” place from a particular perspective and for a particular purpose. A map that shows the roads and highways of Scotland is completely useless to someone examining Scottish weather patterns. A topology map is utterly useless for driving from Glasgow to Inverness. A map that does not account for the curvature of the earth – as the very map the authors use – does an aviator no good. Because our purpose for using the map changes, the relative value of the map changes. The political boundary map that the authors use in their example is completely and utterly useless if you are not examining Scotland from a political boundary perspective.

Here, we return to the Nazi Holocaust example. The authors state, “If the Moral Law doesn’t exist, then there’s no moral difference between the behavior of Mother Teresa and that of Hitler” (p. 178).

Really? In order for this to be true, the moral law would have to state that it is morally right or wrong for every purpose and every perspective. Just like the authors’ maps, however, this does not hold up to scrutiny.

Suppose our purpose is to eliminate poverty and dependence on others for sustenance. Our goal is to enable and empower individuals to help themselves and reduce their dependency on others and help them identify opportunities on their own. To this end, Mother Teresa fails our “rightness” test because while she fed and helped people, she increased their dependency upon her aid. We could even say that it offends our sense of “true” aid because many people could possibly have been freed from the tyranny of dependency earlier had she not locked them into needing her.

Hitler’s premise was that there was an absolute standard as well, an absolute morality that provided by definition the “rightness” of a superior race, an Aryan nation. Hitler made the same claim that the authors make, that there is an absolute morality at play and also made the same binary mistake the authors do: if you are not Aryan, then you must be wrong. Unfortunately, his “Final Solution” was a deadly one. Nevertheless, for that purpose and perspective, Hitler’s “absolute” rightness meant that he did the right thing. Or so the authors would have us believe, if we follow their argument through to its logical conclusion.

Interestingly, the authors argue in this section that “to believe in moral relativism is to argue that there are no real moral differences between Mother Teresa and Hitler, [and] freedom and slavery” (p. 179). However, the Bible not only has several instances where slavery is encouraged, but provides for specific rules on how slaves are to be treated and cared for. Leaving aside for the moment the apparent contradiction in intents, this appears to directly contradict the authors’ earlier arguments that moral positions are absolute and are unchanging.

Without the Moral Law, You Couldn’t Know What was Right or Wrong

Here, again, the authors use an anecdote to illustrate their binary point: either something is right or something is wrong, and you need to know both in order to evaluate the other. Alan Dershowitz described to the audience of a debate that he only knows what is wrong, and doesn’t know what is right. He claimed that he’s devoting the rest of his life trying to find out.

The authors claim that the Road Runner tactic could defeat Dershowitz: “How do you know what’s wrong unless you know what’s right?” (p 179-180). Unfortunately for the authors, the question they ask will not lead to the answers they seek.

The authors continue their streak as thinking in two-dimensions. Just as they had a problem with the evolution/not-evolution argument (where if it’s not evolution the correct answer must be their hypothesis), they miss the legal ramifications of what Dershowitz was saying. As a lawyer, Dershowitz understands that in a courtroom innocence is not argued. The question put in front of a judge or jury is one of guilty or not-guilty.

“Not-guilty,” however, does not mean “innocent.” A criminal may go free not because he did not do the crime, but because there was not enough evidence to definitively state that he is “guilty.” The best that a judge or jury can say is that he is found to be “not guilty.”

Just like in science, when it is never said that a hypothesis is “accepted,” we only say that we “fail to reject” a hypothesis.

The same is true here. Just because we can not say that something is “right,” we can still say that something is “wrong” or “not-wrong.” Why? Because we can easily say that a behavior contradicts the internal consistency of a negotiated order. We can say that someone violated their fiduciary responsibility to another person. We can more readily easily identify a valid grievance than a valid adherence to that negotiated order.

The authors could have used the Road Runner tactic on Dershowitz, but it would have backfired.

Without the Moral Law, There are No Moral Grounds for Political or Social Dissent

By this point it should be easy to see that this is simply incorrect. The authors claim in this section that atheists claim that there are no rights, but this is again where the authors’ bait-and-switch comes back to haunt them. The authors make this dubious (and incorrect) claim:

The problem [for atheists] is that many of them… have no objective moral grounds for the positions they vocally support. For if their is no Moral Law, then no position on any moral issue is objectively right or wrong – including the positions taken by atheists (p. 180).

The issue is not whether or not the rights exist, it’s where they come from. The authors’ claim that “in a nontheistic world there are no rights” is simply not true, because rights are inherent, not granted.

Unless atheists claim that there is a God and that his Moral Law condones or commands these activities, then their positions are nothing more than their own subjective preferences. And no one is under any moral obligation to agree with mere preferences or to allow atheists to legislatively impose them on the rest of us (p. 180).

This is a particularly interesting threat. The authors are stating outright that unless Atheists convert to a Theistic world view, Christians will refuse to cooperate with any legislation.

Where exactly are the rights that the authors so proudly claim are given by God? Are they rights or are they privileges? The authors seem to use either term interchangeably when it becomes convenient, but do not seem to have any such strict adherence to their own definitions:

So, by rebelling against the Moral Law, atheists have, ironically, undermined their grounds for rebelling against anything. In fact, without the Moral Law, no one has any objective grounds for being for or against anything! But since we all know that issues involving life and liberty are more than mere preferences – that they involve real moral rights – then the Moral Law exists.

Unfortunately the argument doesn’t hold up. Supposing that an Atheist believes that the Moral Law does not exist, then there is nothing to rebel against. Additionally, as we have already seen, there is plenty to be “for or against,” especially with regards to a negotiated order within human relationships. As with the professor and the student, we can object to sudden affronts to that negotiated order and be legitimate in our complaints. None of these objections are invalid without a Moral Law.

If there were no Moral Law, then we wouldn’t make excuses for violating it

This is a valid point, or rather it would be if the excuses that people make were for violating a Moral Law.

When people make excuses for their behavior, though, they do so because they know that they have caused an affront to a system of beliefs that mandate right or wrong. Often times, because moral issues are often complex and difficult, the excuses that are made are done not because of an acknowledgement of a Moral Law, but because the moral context requires further explanation.

Suppose for the moment that the authors are correct: murder is wrong. This is the example they use over and over within the book as a moral absolute. While paying lip service to moral choices being difficult, the authors gloss over the dozens of examples when the Bible itself provides for instances where people should be “put to death” (e.g., murdered). At the end of this essay are some relevant biblical passages.

So, using the authors’ own arguments against them, is the situation absolute or isn’t it?

This section, however, tends to focus less on the Moral Law and more on tolerance. Once again, the authors take a perfectly good term and abuse the reader with an inappropriate operational definition:

Even the number one virtue of our largely immoral culture – tolerance – reveals the Moral Law, because tolerance itself is a moral principle. If there is no Moral Law, then why should anyone be tolerant? Actually, the Moral Law calls us to go beyond tolerance to love. Tolerance is too weak – tolerance says, hold your nose and put up with them. Love says, reach out and help them. Tolerating evil is unloving, but that’s what many in our culture want us to do.

Moreover, the plea to be tolerant is a tacit admission that the behavior to be tolerated is wrong. Why? Because you don’t need to plead with people to tolerate good behavior, only bad.

On the surface, this looks like it makes a great deal of sense. After all, we tolerate bad behavior all the time. We tolerate parents who allow screaming children into R-rated movies and sit-down restaurants. We tolerate Christians knocking on our doors attempting to save us from our sins. We tolerate smokers in enclosed spaces when we are non-smokers.

But tolerance involves something that has nothing to do with a Moral Law. It has to do with a process of determining how much of an affront we are subjected to at any given moment. In order to tolerate something we must ask ourselves a very important question: “How much does this activity violate me or my sense of negotiated order?”

Now, granted we do not ask ourselves that question in that way. Even I don’t. But we have to go through an evaluation process to determine if the damage done by being intolerant is greater or worse than being tolerant. As the authors suggest, holding one’s nose and put up with some obnoxious brat is often less of a ripple in the negotiated social order than confronting the parents of that obnoxious brat.

The real question of tolerance comes when people feel an affront who have absolutely no reason to feel affronted. The authors fall into this category when discussing homosexuality or sodomy (not one and the same). In such instances, the authors are neither directly nor indirectly affected by these issues (I’m making a huge assumption here, given their writings). There is no legitimate sense of entitlement that the authors can claim against such behavior, unlike the previous examples.

For instance, I can claim to be entitled to my sense of “adult space” in an R-rated movie, entitled to my sense of privacy in my home not to be subjected to proselytizing, or entitled to my healthy lungs. For other elements that the authors describe, there is no sense of entitlement that is affronted which would require tolerance. To them, the plead for “tolerance” is simply a polite way of telling people to shut up and accept what they cannot change and have no business in. The Moral Law that the authors hold onto so dearly here cannot explain why they feel they should have a say or a sense of entitlement, and instead becomes merely a convenient answer when challenged.

Absolute Vs. Relative: Why The Confusion?

It may surprise the reader to find that I have found much to agree with in regards to this chapter, particularly when it comes to elements of confusion between absolute versus relative morality.

The authors describe six different confusions between the two stances:

  • Absolute Morals vs. Changing Behavior
  • Absolute Morals vs. Changing Perception of the Facts
  • Absolute Morals vs. Applying them to Particular Situations
  • An Absolute Command (What) vs. a Relative Culture (How)
  • Absolute Morals vs. Moral Disagreements
  • Absolute Ends (Values) vs. Relative Means

Again, one of the authors has a Ph.D in Philosophy, so here he (Geisler) is on extremely familiar territory, and it shows in this section of the chapter. The arguments are cogent and well articulated. Repeating them here in detail would merely be superfluous, so it would be time better spent to summarize and emphasize the salient points.

The authors have made it very clear that they believe that there is a bipolar issue concerning absolute versus relative morality. Previously I have included a third possibility, one of a negotiated order. It would be unfair at this point to criticize the authors for not addressing a negotiated order method of evaluated morals, since that’s not their stated goal.

Here the authors do a pretty good job, actually. Relativism does, indeed, have severe flaws. In the beginning of this section one of the weakest arguments relativists have is also the most common: “C’mon, it’s the 21st Century,” as if the day on the calendar somehow identifies a proper system of right and wrong. The authors correctly state that this is simply not the case. If this were true (to take their argument further than they do in the book), it would be impossible to know how to anticipate behavior in the future, whether it be for yourself or for anyone else.

Additionally, the authors are correct that interpretations of facts change over time (albeit this is one of the major contentions that they coincidentally argue against in previous chapters) which modifies the manner in which events are interpreted. Here, though, the authors argue that the moral principle underlying the facts doesn’t change, just that the perception has changed. The example they choose is one of the Salem Witch hunts, where our perception of “whether witches are really murders [has changed (and is relative)] but the moral values involved in the situation have not changed at all (murder has always been and always will be wrong)” (p. 183).

The danger in this approach is that the authors seem to neglect the basic fundamental value – in this example – that they imply murder itself is not wrong when done to witches. The corollary to the argument is that had the women in Salem actually been witches, it would have been okay to murder them because the perception of the time would have been equivalent to today’s. As shown in some of the excerpts from the Bible included at the end of this essay, the authors’ contention that murder has always been and always will be wrong is very much incorrect according to their own definitive source of morality.

At this point, it is important to reiterate that much of their argument for absolutism simply is a refutation against relativism.

For instance, when discussing their third confusion (about applying morals in a given situation), the authors illustrate a classic moral dilemma:

There are five people trying to survive on a life raft designed for only four. If one person isn’t thrown overboard, then everyone will die. Students labor over the dilemma, come to different conclusions, and then conclude their disagreement proves that morality must be relative.

But the dilemma actually proves the opposite – that morality is absolute. How? Because there would be no dilemma if morality were relative! If morality were relative and there were no absolute right to life, you’d say, “It doesn’t matter what happens! Throw everyone overboard! Who cares?” The very reason we struggle with the dilemma is because we know how valuable life is. (p. 184, emphasis in the original)

There are two problems with their example, however. First, even if they are correct, that morality cannot be relative, it does not automatically mean that their position is necessarily correct. This goes back to the “not guilty” not equalling “innocent” problem.

Second, the relative morality does not mean that there is no value to life at all. It does not mean that if there is an absolute morality it would have different sets of values than a relative morality. After all, morals are a “system of right and wrong;” the question is merely whether or not that system is absolute or relative. Merely being an absolute system does not dictate different sets of values or a different prescription of behavior. It would make sense that some ideas and values would overlap, such as in this example.

This either/or approach has caught the authors out in the cold before, particularly with scientific observations and even in their approach to logical syllogisms. They are caught out again when they attempt to deduce a Moral Law from the existence of just one Absolute moral obligation: “If just one moral obligation exists (such as don’t murder, or don’t rape, or don’t torture babes), then the Moral Law exists. If the Moral Law exists, then so does the Moral Law Giver” (p. 184-5, emphasis in the original).

Wouldn’t the opposite be just as true? If just one moral obligation is answered “It depends,” wouldn’t that mean that a Moral Law cannot exist? And if just one “it depends” negates the Moral Law, then would that not also negate the Moral Law Giver?

The authors use murder as their apex of an absolute moral law. However, their definitive guide to the Moral Law – the Bible – instructs its followers in numerous occasions to commit murder for all kinds of capital crimes. I include several of these examples below, but here’s one in particular that seems to put the authors’ arguments on its ear:

Exodus 21:17


“Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.”

What’s important to note here is that this is The Bible instructing its followers to do this. The authors, however, have used murder as their prime example for an immutable Moral Law mandated by the Moral Law Giver. However, here we have an explicit instruction to murder by the Moral Law Giver.

On the one hand we have the authors claiming that “murder has always been and always will be wrong” (p. 183) because it was decreed by a Moral Law Giver. But that very same Moral Law Giver has mandated murder (and not just in this passage, see below for many more).

So, the authors are faced with a very serious conundrum: either the Moral Law is absolute or it is not, even for the Moral Law Giver. For the authors to say – just once – that there is any moment when an Absolute Law is relatively applied (e.g., “Murder is always wrong except when God decrees otherwise”) means that the Law is not absolute!

Another example the authors give is slavery, one in which atheists constantly point out as a thorn in the “moral law” side of Christian absolutists. Except in this case, the authors imply heavily that everybody ‘knows’ that slavery is morally wrong, and contrary to the Moral Law. However, if that’s the case then why did God (or a Moral Law Giver who Gives Absolute Moral Laws) make specific rules for selling and maintaining slaves:

Exodus 21:7


“If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as menservants do.”


Perhaps the biggest problems that the authors have are when they use the terms “values” without really taking a time to examine what values truly are. This is an area that I have some expertise in, actually. My doctoral dissertation spent a great deal of time and effort trying to determine a simple, accurate, and complete definition of the term “values.”

I couldn’t do it.

The best I could do was merely create a definition for how I was going to use the term for the purposes of the dissertation. Why was this so hard to do? Because values are more than just “what people think are important.”

When we say we “value” human life, what precisely does this mean? Does this mean that we hold it as a priority? That we think it’s important? What about it is important? Let’s take that “importance” idea one step further.

What about “values?” How do we place a comprehension on the term “values” so that they can guide our system of right and wrong (morals)? When we say that we have “family values,” what does that truly mean? Does that mean that the family is important to us? What about it is important? That it exists? That it gives us something? That there will be catastrophe and chaos if it doesn’t exist? Or is it more personal than that? Is it something that provides us with some sense of identity? How do we differentiate, then, between “valuing the family” and having “family values?”

These are just minute examples of some of the problems we run into when we start examining values. Since morals are based on values, our problems are exacerbated even further. How can we have a system of beliefs regarding right and wrong based upon values, which we have extreme difficulty identifying in the first place?

This is why the authors so desperately need to have a Moral Law Giver, as well as a Moral Law. It removes a great deal of the uncertainty involved in striking a moving target. But simply decreeing that there is an Absolute Moral Law is very different than identifying an Absolute Moral Law.

Once again, the authors are reduced to making wild accusations against “Darwinists,” using, of all things Nazi experimentation and quotes from Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Of their examples they choose Peter Singer’s claim “that parents should be able to kill their newborn infants until they are 28 days of age” (p. 190) to indicate that Darwinists (and those who believe in evolution) have lost their minds.

If it was even remotely true that evolution took any stand such as this then the authors would have a good point. As it is, however, it is merely another straw man to knock down in order to divert attention from their own issues. This unfortunately leads them to make astounding comments about the motivations and inhuman nature of Darwinists:

Nazi-like experiments cannot be condemned by Darwinists, because there is no objective moral standard in a Darwinian world (p. 190).

However, Nazi-like experiments are condemned by Darwinists, atheists, and other non-Christians because it offends a moral standard of human interaction, whether it be “objective” or not. The authors, of course, have an answer for this too:

[S]ome Darwinists might disagree with the implication that murder and rape are not wrong (precisely because the Moral Law speaks to them through their consciences) (p. 191).

The authors have created a wonderful “Emperor has no clothes” argument here: The Moral Law exists and if you don’t see it then you are too stupid to see it. The Moral Law works through your consciences even though you don’t know it’s there. How wonderfully convenient.

There is no question, however, that there are people who have raised unpleasant and disturbing questions regarding the usefulness of human beings who may be on evolutions “special” second string bench. The authors emphasize Nazi experiments, James Rachel’s questions of using mentally retarded people as laboratory subjects, and Thornhill and Palmer’s argument that rape is a product of evolutionary heritage.

The implications of such questions and statements are, indeed, disturbing to contemplate, much less entertain. We want to believe that there is an inherent value to human life, but at the same time it is utter arrogance to assume that just because we are human we are above the limitations of biology.

As the authors state with derision, “Murder and rape can’t be objectively wrong (i.e., against the Moral Law) because there are no laws if only chemicals exist” (p. 191). Here, though, they are correct but not in the way they intend. Moral Law cannot exist if only chemicals exist. But chemicals do not exist in a vacuum; they interact and react according to properties that they have inherent to their existence.

Human beings, animals in the woods, fish in the sea, all have the same interrelationship with those around them. Even though they are made up of biological and biochemical elements, the relationship between them and their outside environment is what, in part, defines their ability to negotiate with that environment.

The authors criticize Darwinists for making assertions, not arguments. “There is no empirical or forensic evidence that natural selection can account for new life forms, much less morality” (p 191), the authors state. Evolution – rather than Darwinism – has been able to account for and show forensic, empirical evidence for life forms, but evolution does not in and of itself account for morality because it was never supposed to do so. The process of evolution, however, can provide us with empirical and forensic evidence on morality, in that in the evolution of ideas and negotiated order, we find that the moving target of morals, values, and systems of them both react and interact with each other until a recognizable pattern emerges.

This is called autopoeisis.

And the authors don’t know anything about it. They make claims, assertions, not arguments, thus falling victim to the very accusation they throw at Darwinists.

Matter of Opinion

The authors state that when they do a seminar, they ‘shock’ the audience by making the following claims:

  1. If there is no God, then what Hitler did was just a matter of opinion!
  2. If at least one thing is really morally wrong – like it’s wrong to torture babies, or it’s wrong to intentionally fly planes into buildings with innocent people in them – then God exists (p. 192)

The authors then recline back in their seats, smug in their befuddling their audience. The problem, of course, is that an examination of each of these statements leads some difficulty in accepting them.

The authors claim that there needs to be something “outside ourselves” to judge our concepts of right and wrong. C. S. Lewis illustrates this (as cited by the authors) when he recognized that in order to evaluate something as “wrong” there must be a concept to compare it to. Lewis and the authors, however, assume that knowing something as “not-wrong” is the same thing as knowing something is “right,” which is not always correct.

Likewise, merely having an outside (or “higher”) source than ourselves does not automatically permit a conclusion that it is God. Even if it is God who created a Moral Law that is absolute, we have seen that there are several instances when even His Moral Law is not absolute! In this way, even the authors fail to realize that even their Absolute Moral Law “cannot justify why anything is morally right or wrong. It cannot guarantee human rights or ultimate justice in the universe” (p. 193). Now, I took that quote out of context – they are referring to atheists, but it appears that the same criticism can be applied to their own stance as well.

We must remove forever the notion that the authors are attempting to pass onto us, that if atheists are wrong, they must be right.

Biblical Verses mandating murder, servitude/slavery

Genesis 38:24

About three months later Judah was told, “Your daughter-in-law Tamar is guilty of prostitution, and as a result she is now pregnant.” Judah said, “Bring her out and have her burned to death!”

Exodus 19:12

Put limits for the people around the mountain and tell them, ‘Be careful that you do not go up the mountain or touch the foot of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death.

Exodus 21:12

[ Personal Injuries ] “Anyone who strikes a man and kills him shall surely be put to death.

Exodus 21:15

“Anyone who attacks [ Or kills ] his father or his mother must be put to death.

Exodus 21:7

“If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as menservants do.”

Exodus 21:17

“Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.”

Exodus 21:29

If, however, the bull has had the habit of goring and the owner has been warned but has not kept it penned up and it kills a man or woman, the bull must be stoned and the owner also must be put to death.”

Exodus 22:19

“Anyone who has sexual relations with an animal must be put to death.”

Exodus 31:14

” ‘Observe the Sabbath, because it is holy to you. Anyone who desecrates it must be put to death; whoever does any work on that day must be cut off from his people.”

Exodus 31:15

For six days, work is to be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of rest, holy to the LORD. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day must be put to death.

This is, by the way, repeated in Exodus 35:2

Leviticus 20:2

“Say to the Israelites: ‘Any Israelite or any alien living in Israel who gives [ Or sacrifices ; also in verses 3 and ] any of his children to Molech must be put to death. The people of the community are to stone him.

Leviticus 20:9

” ‘If anyone curses his father or mother, he must be put to death. He has cursed his father or his mother, and his blood will be on his own head.

Leviticus 20:10

” ‘If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife—with the wife of his neighbor—both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death.

Leviticus 20:11

” ‘If a man sleeps with his father’s wife, he has dishonored his father. Both the man and the woman must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.

Leviticus 20:12

” ‘If a man sleeps with his daughter-in-law, both of them must be put to death. What they have done is a perversion; their blood will be on their own heads.

Leviticus 20:13

” ‘If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.

Leviticus 20:15

” ‘If a man has sexual relations with an animal, he must be put to death, and you must kill the animal.

Leviticus 20:16

” ‘If a woman approaches an animal to have sexual relations with it, kill both the woman and the animal. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.

Leviticus 20:27

” ‘A man or woman who is a medium or spiritist among you must be put to death. You are to stone them; their blood will be on their own heads.’ ”

Leviticus 24:16

anyone who blasphemes the name of the LORD must be put to death. The entire assembly must stone him. Whether an alien or native-born, when he blasphemes the Name, he must be put to death.

Leviticus 24:21

Whoever kills an animal must make restitution, but whoever kills a man must be put to death.

Numbers 3:10

Appoint Aaron and his sons to serve as priests; anyone else who approaches the sanctuary must be put to death.”

Numbers 15:31

“Because he has despised the LORD’s word and broken his commands, that person must surely be cut off; his guilt remains on him.’ ”

Numbers 15:32-33, 35-36

32 While the Israelites were in the desert, a man was found gathering wood on the Sabbath day. 33 Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses and Aaron and the whole assembly, 35 Then the LORD said to Moses, “The man must die. The whole assembly must stone him outside the camp.” 36 So the assembly took him outside the camp and stoned him to death, as the LORD commanded Moses.

Deuteronomy 13:6-9

6 If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” (gods that neither you nor your fathers have known, 7 gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other), 8 do not yield to him or listen to him. Show him no pity. Do not spare him or shield him. 9 You must certainly put him to death. Your hand must be the first in putting him to death, and then the hands of all the people.

Deuteronomy 17:12

The man who shows contempt for the judge or for the priest who stands ministering there to the LORD your God must be put to death.

Deuteronomy 18:20

But a prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I have not commanded him to say, or a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, must be put to death.”

Deuteronomy 22:20-21

(upon not being able to prove a girl is a virgin)

20 If, however, the charge is true and no proof of the girl’s virginity can be found, 21 she shall be brought to the door of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death. She has done a disgraceful thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her father’s house.

Deuteronomy 22:23-24

23 If a man happens to meet in a town a virgin pledged to be married and he sleeps with her, 24 you shall take both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death—the girl because she was in a town and did not scream for help, and the man because he violated another man’s wife.

Deuteronomy 24:16

Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their fathers; each is to die for his own sin.

Judges 15:6

When the Philistines asked, “Who did this?” they were told, “Samson, the Timnite’s son-in-law, because his wife was given to his friend.” So the Philistines went up and burned her and her father to death.

1 Samuel 5:6

The LORD’s hand was heavy upon the people of Ashdod and its vicinity; he brought devastation upon them and afflicted them with tumors. [ Hebrew; Septuagint and Vulgate tumors. And rats appeared in their land, and death and destruction were throughout the city ]<BR

1 Samuel 5:11

So they called together all the rulers of the Philistines and said, “Send the ark of the god of Israel away; let it go back to its own place, or it [ Or he ] will kill us and our people.” For death had filled the city with panic; God’s hand was very heavy upon it.

1 Samuel 11:12

[ Saul Confirmed as King ] The people then said to Samuel, “Who was it that asked, ‘Shall Saul reign over us?’ Bring these men to us and we will put them to death.”

1 Samuel 15:3

Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy [ The Hebrew term refers to the irrevocable giving over of things or persons to the LORD, often by totally destroying them; also in verses 8, 9, 15, 18, 20 and 21. ] everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’ ”

2 Samuel 14:7

Now the whole clan has risen up against your servant; they say, ‘Hand over the one who struck his brother down, so that we may put him to death for the life of his brother whom he killed; then we will get rid of the heir as well.’ They would put out the only burning coal I have left, leaving my husband neither name nor descendant on the face of the earth.”

1 Kings 21:10

But seat two scoundrels opposite him and have them testify that he has cursed both God and the king. Then take him out and stone him to death.”

1 Kings 21:15

As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned to death, she said to Ahab, “Get up and take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite that he refused to sell you. He is no longer alive, but dead.”

2 Kings 19:35

That night the angel of the LORD went out and put to death a hundred and eighty-five thousand men in the Assyrian camp. When the people got up the next morning—there were all the dead bodies!

1 Chronicles 2:3

[ Judah To Hezron’s Sons ] The sons of Judah: Er, Onan and Shelah. These three were born to him by a Canaanite woman, the daughter of Shua. Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the LORD’s sight; so the LORD put him to death.

1 Chronicles 10:13-15

13 Saul died because he was unfaithful to the LORD; he did not keep the word of the LORD and even consulted a medium for guidance, 14 and did not inquire of the LORD. So the LORD put him to death and turned the kingdom over to David son of Jesse.

2 Chronicles 15:13

All who would not seek the LORD, the God of Israel, were to be put to death, whether small or great, man or woman.

Ezra 7:26

Whoever does not obey the law of your God and the law of the king must surely be punished by death, banishment, confiscation of property, or imprisonment.

Psalm 44:22

Yet for your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.

Psalm 78:31

God’s anger rose against them; he put to death the sturdiest among them, cutting down the young men of Israel.

Psalm 78:50

He prepared a path for his anger; he did not spare them from death but gave them over to the plague.

Proverbs 16:25

There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.

Ezekiel 18:32

For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live!

Ezekiel 28:10

You will die the death of the uncircumcised at the hands of foreigners. I have spoken, declares the Sovereign LORD.’ ”

Matthew 10:20-22

20 for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through yo

u. 21″Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. 22All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.

Matthew 15:4

For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ [ Exodus 20:12; Deut. 5:16] and ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ [ Exodus 21:17; Lev. 20:9]

Mark 13:12

“Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child. Children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death.

Romans 1:32

Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.

Romans 6:23

For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in [ Or through] Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 7:5

For when we were controlled by the sinful nature, [ Or the flesh; also in verse 25] the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in our bodies, so that we bore fruit for death.

1 Corinthians 15:56

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.

James 5:20

remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.

Revelation 21:8

But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”

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